How Can Assistant Principals Improve Teacher/Student Relationships?
Leadership Skills and Implementation

Just for APs: Supporting Teacher/Student Relationships

By Terry Wilhelm
How Can Assistant Principals Improve Teacher/Student Relationships?

In my experience, one of the greatest challenges assistant principals and other administrators face is supporting the growth of teachers who have become stuck in a negative, punitive orientation toward students. These teachers often generate the lion’s share of office referrals.

Punishment-focused teachers tend to lack classroom management skills

Typically, punitive teachers lack a classroom-based system of respectful, progressive discipline, so their first line of defense is to send a student to the office. They make mountains out of molehills when it comes to student behavior. Their typical responses to real or imagined misbehaviors create power struggles, embarrass students, and create resentment. At a foundational level, these teachers do not have positive, professional, caring relationships with students.

Likewise, since they have no relationship to protect, students do not care if they irritate teachers who have an adversarial view of them. They have nothing to lose. Some students actually delight in pushing these teachers’ buttons because they gain increased stature with peers who also have no relationship with the teacher. What a vicious, downwardly-spiraling cycle!

Witnessing growth in a classroom management course for teachers

For several years as an adjunct instructor, I had the opportunity to teach a master-level classroom management course. Of the many classes I’ve taught over the years, this was my favorite. The growth I saw in teachers was positively amazing.

The major part of the course grade was based on a personal project. Each university student — all of whom were practicing classroom teachers — chose a student or small group of students in her class as the basis for her project. In some cases, it was a whole class in a specific period at the secondary level (these tended to be tricky time slots such as the last class of the day, or the first section after lunch).

Improving student behavior, one step at a time

The project began with a problem statement describing the behaviors the teachers wished to see improved, but also required them to reflect on the positives about their chosen students (this may remind you of student study teams). Each week, we examined new strategies for improving classroom management. The teachers kept journals of the impact of implementing them with their target students.

The first week’s strategies focused on relationship building, on the classroom and individual student level, as well as how to teach classroom routines, and re-examining room arrangements. Many teachers began reporting remarkable inroads after one week’s application.

Improving ‘this year’s awful class’ by adjusting a teacher’s attitude

Perhaps the most poignant of all the projects came from a second-grade teacher who was so burned out by “this year’s awful class” that she was desperately exploring every possibility for early retirement. She selected a target group of seven or eight boys who simply drained all her energy, every day.

To build relationships, she began having them bring their lunch trays or brown bags into the classroom once a week for a social lunch with her (this was intended as a purely positive intervention and in no way constituted any sort of punishment). She learned things about each of them, and they learned things about her.

As the semester unfolded, a transformation occurred. The teacher kept reporting that the boys were changing — and perhaps certain behaviors did — but clearly, she was changing more. Her tearful final report touched all of us when she shared its highlights.

APs should explore options for improving teacher/student relationships

Obviously, as an assistant principal, you cannot require teachers to learn about their students as people, or to build relationships with them. But you do have influence, even with staff members with whom you might think you have little or none. How can you influence your own target group of professionals?

Shadowing, mentoring and modeling are all effective ways for APs to shed light on positive teacher/student interactions

Certainly you can provide direct suggestions, but these may be dismissed by a teacher who has given up on a student. APs may need to ask deeper questions, including:

  • What are some possibilities for engineering informal experiences that could be powerful for a struggling teacher?
  • What might be some ways to partner the teacher having problems with a student with another teacher with whom the student is successful?
  • What could be some options to arrange for the teacher having difficulties to shadow the partner teacher and observe the positive teacher-student interactions firsthand?

APs’ influence as leaders can make a major difference to both the teachers and the students. Positive teacher-student relationships are foundational, not only to classroom management, but to student learning.

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